Gender Equality in the Workplace: Are Small Businesses Doing Enough?
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Gender Equality in the Workplace: Are Small Businesses Doing Enough?

There’s no doubt that gender inequality in the workplace is narrowing and that we’re far beyond the days of the ‘token woman’ in the boardroom.

In fact, according to research from EEF, women now make up 21% of directorships in FTSE 100 manufacturing companies, up from 19% last year. However, although women now make up nearly half of the total UK workforce, they are over-represented in terms of part-time and lower-paid work. Progress is being made, but there’s still a long way to go before gender equality is finally realised for working women.

UK businesses – and small businesses in particular – must do more to promote gender equality and ensure that more women can rise to positions of power within companies. Those that implement pro-active policies to further level the playing field will see the range of benefits that more diversity brings in terms of innovation, decision-making and working practices. Research shows that quotas do work but they’re not enough on their own. True gender equality will only be attained when the distinct skills that women bring to the workplace are properly recognised by businesses.

Benefits of Diversity for Businesses

For many UK businesses – and particularly small to medium enterprises (SMEs) – still struggling in the current economic climate, the key to survival and business growth lies in building the best possible team. Gender equality is the realisation of a true meritocracy where the most talented individuals have the opportunity to advance in their careers, regardless of gender. As such, anything less than equality means businesses are not making the best use of available talent.

As with racial diversity, gender diversity can bring to the workplace new insights and perspectives, increased knowledge and diverse and complementary skill sets. Fresh ideas and perspectives brought to business by women can help to fuel business growth as companies with progressive gender policies advance beyond competitors stuck in a more traditional mindset. Innovation – the key ingredient for business growth – can flourish far more easily in a diverse workplace than one filled with men of similar age, race and outlook.

The advantage to business of increased gender equality is not simply a high-minded ideal but backed up by scientific data. For example, research from Harvard University’s Women and Public Policy programme confirms that decision-making is improved by greater diversity with more correct outcomes predicted by teams with more gender, racial and international diversity. In addition, studies reveal that women tend to make less risky decisions than men. As businesses survive and thrive on the accurate evaluation of risk, it’s crucial to have a balanced perspective which gender equality can assist.

More Flexible Working Practices

In order to build the most talented team, small businesses must reach out to a more diverse pool of potential employees, including higher numbers of women. Embracing more flexible working practices – such as flexi-time, working from home and job-sharing – can greatly improve the ability of companies to hire the most talented individuals for their organisation. These days the best candidates are more likely to be looking for jobs that offer a good work-life balance as well as just a competitive salary.

The idea that women will abandon their career to have children – and therefore waste investment in training – is a last-century mindset that no longer fits the way modern companies are required to do business. Women no longer have to choose between a family and a career unless they’re forced to by the companies they work for. Instead, businesses should concentrate on supporting women to juggle the requirements of a career and family by providing more flexible work practices. Of course, the same rules should also be applied to men who wish to spend more time with their family.

Fostering Female Entrepreneurs

The number of women working for themselves – whether independently or by owning a business – stood at 1.25 million in 2013, a rise of 19% in the last five years. While it’s encouraging to see more women strike out on their own, this is largely due to the removal of cost barriers in starting a business as a result of online technology. In fact, there has been no change in women’s slice of business ownership in the last twenty years. In addition, women entrepreneurs still tend to be over-represented in businesses such as retail, food, arts, beauty and healthcare and under-represented in industrial, manufacturing, engineering and other traditionally male-dominated sectors.

As well as implementing better working practices, small businesses should encourage more female entrepreneurs by fostering talent at an early age. This could involve working with local colleges and universities to create programs for women who want to develop their own business ideas. Small businesses could also offer more placements and work experience to young women. This will enable the next generation of businesswomen to gain management skills together with the confidence required to compete equally in the corporate workplace.

Britain has come a long way in narrowing the gender equality gap but there’s a lot more to be done. If the UK’s 5 million SMEs lead the way in promoting gender equality, Britain’s small business culture will be stronger as a result.